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NTMS’s Inga Cashon goes from the classroom to Space Camp
STEM teacher gets astronaut training at Space & Rocket Center
L to r:  Astronaut Mike Foreman with NTMS teacher Inga Cashon.
L to r: Astronaut Mike Foreman with NTMS teacher Inga Cashon.

When North Tattnall Middle School (NTMS) educator Inga Cashon was chosen as a top-10 Georgia Teacher of the Year finalist in 2023, she also qualified for the experience of a lifetime – a week of astronaut training at Space Camp on the grounds of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“When you’re a finalist or a district teacher of the year, there’s a conference you can attend,” she said. “At the conference, you could apply to receive one of the grants to go to Space Camp. So I applied for the grant and they chose my application from that, and they paid $1,000 toward my tuition, my meals, and my lodging.”

So, on May 29, Cashon packed her bags and headed to Huntsville to participate in the unique, sometimes challenging training camp.

“It was awesome,” Cashon said of the experience. “It was a lot of fun. I’ll probably be talking about it for years.”

And she’ll have something to remember it by for many years, too.

“We did get to keep the blue flight suit that the participants wore during the training,” she said.

Cashon said there was also an element of competition during the training.

“While you were there, you were competing in different challenges and missions with your team – they put you in teams – and at the end, we graduated and earned patches for our flight suits,” she said.

Cashon’s team was called Team ACABA, named for NASA astronaut Joseph M. Acaba, who was selected as a mission specialist in 2004, and flew three missions into space, most recently serving as Flight Engineer on an International Space Station expedition in 2017-2018. Acaba also earned a Master of Education, Curriculum and Instruction degree from Texas Tech University in 2015.

While at the camp, Cashon said one of the toughest training sessions included simulated emergency aviation situations involving water.

“We had to do something called the ‘aviation challenge.’ And we actually zip-lined backwards, and we were hooked to a parachute harness,” she said. “What it was doing was simulating if you were in a helicopter crash or if your space capsule landed in the ocean. That was probably the hardest of all the challenges.”

“After we dropped into the water, they put us in this raft or lifeboat, and we had to swim to safety before they lifted us out of the water,” she said.

Cashon said there was a little confusion about the exercise at first.

“Nobody was really clear on the directions at first; we were just like ‘what?’ I don’t know if that was by design or we weren’t paying attention,” she said with a laugh.

But she never felt in danger, adding that there were lifeguards nearby to ensure the participants’ safety.

Another interesting aspect of the camp was the missions, Cashon said. The simulation missions included one on the Space Shuttle Discovery and the other was a mission to Mars.

“We had to do two missions, like a space mission,” she explained. “They would train you the day before and you had a script you had to follow, but you also had directions.

“Nobody wanted to be the pilot, but I thought that sounded cool, but then I found out that was one of the harder tasks, so I found out why nobody volunteered,” she said, laughing.

“Then they asked me if I was claustrophobic or afraid of tight spaces, and I said maybe a little bit, but what are you getting at?”

She soon found out.

“You had to crawl into the fake space shuttle and get in your seat, so that was why,” she said. “And then there were all these buttons in front of you. They had trained us on what button was what, but there were so many.”

“While we were doing the actual mission, or simulation, we followed a script, but they also made things happen, such as emergency situations, and how you would respond to it,” she said.

The missions also highlighted another goal of the training – teamwork.

“I think that was one of the most challenging things,” Cashon said of the missions. “You’re on a team, you work together with your team after they instruct you on what to do to fix something that wasn’t in the directions.”

Cashon said the camp was a lot of fun, but was also educational in a way that would help her and her camp mates become better educators.

“We were having fun, obviously,” she began, “because we were getting to do astronaut training, the helicopter crash, but in between all that, we attended educational sessions and not only did we build rockets, we did something called an egg drop, and we made slime; I’d always heard my middle school students talking about making slime, and we actually did it.

“We did all these different things, but what was interesting was I wasn’t the only STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) teacher or science teacher there, and every teacher did something different and they had asked us at the beginning what we taught and they accommodated for what each teacher did,” she said.

“No matter what your subject was, they gave you information you could bring back to help your students,” Cashon said. “And team-building was huge because there were a lot of team-building situations.”

Cashon credits a Georgia Southern University professor for sparking her interest in science and technology, which has led to her long career in education.

“When I attended Georgia Southern as an undergraduate back around 2002, I met Dr. Alexander, and he taught those classes,” she said. “He taught those classes that were called technology education – that’s what the degree was called at the time – so when I met him, that’s who led me into STEM and becoming a teacher. He served as a mentor.”

And that led to a circle-back moment in Cashon’s life and career.

“In fact, one of the first projects I did with him was the rockets, like we did at space camp, so I thought that was pretty cool,” she explained.

Cashon feels the experience of Space Camp was possibly the height of training for her career.

“I think that was the peak of any professional development I’ve been through,” she said with a laugh.

She was also delighted to meet astronaut Mike Foreman and author Homer Hickman, whose book was made into a movie, October Sky.

Cashon, who has been an engineering and technology teacher for nine years at the high school level, is currently completing a Doctorate of Education in Curriculum Studies with a concentration in engineering and technology education at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.

She has also been an instructional coach for two years and a STEM teacher for four years at the middle school level. She will be acting as the Media Specialist for the 2023-2025 school year at NTMS.

She is a member of the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, The National Network of State Teachers of the Year, Georgia Teachers of the Year Association, and the Georgia Professional Association of Georgia Educators 

Her parents are Pat and India Easterling of Reidsville. Cashon lives in Statesboro with her husband, Trey Cashon.

Space Camp has been helping inspire the next generation of explorers for more than 42 years, having been founded in 1982. The internationally known program with more than one million alumni is based on NASA astronaut training and focuses on teamwork and leadership skills. Space Camp has inspired and motivated young people from around the country, and later the world, with attendees from all 50 states, U.S. territories, and 150 foreign countries. The camp offers space, aviation, and robotics camps to children between the ages of 9 to 18, adults of all ages, families, and educators.